Rx Drop off site map

Law enforcement agencies all over North Carolina will collect old prescription drugs at events throughout this week.

By Rose Hoban

It was a beautiful day for an outdoor event yesterday in Pittsboro, and dozens of people came out to get free pizza and soda, meet local radio personalities and drop off their old prescription medications.

Events were held at three sites scattered around Chatham County; they were some of the first in a week-long series of events (see map below) around North Carolina, to rid home medicine chests of old prescription pills and potions.

Law enforcement officials have been collaborating with health department workers, drug prevention counselors and community groups for several years to hold semi-annual medication drop-off days as part of a campaign to reduce deaths by overdose, known formally as unintentional poisoning.

According to statistics from the NC Division of Public Health, 947 people in North Carolina died of unintentional poisonings in 2010. By comparison 1301 people died in motor vehicle accidents in the state during the same year. Overall, unintentional poisoning is the second leading cause of injury death in North Carolina, and it’s the leading cause of death for people from the ages of 35-54 years old.

“A lot of people don’t think about this issue,” said NC Attorney General Roy Cooper. “Deaths from drug overdose has surpassed auto accidents in a number of states.”

Often, a doctor or a dentist will prescribe a week, or ten day’s worth of pain medications after a procedure. Patients may only need two or three day’s worth of pain relief, and then the bulk of the medications sit in a cabinet, where they’re readily available.

Susan Powell and Colleen Hughes dump pills into evidence bags at the Pittsboro medication drop-off site yesterday

Cooper said one of the big concerns when it comes to prescription drugs are teenagers.

“Statistics show us that 2/3rds of young people who abuse prescription drugs get them either from their home or a friend’s home,” Cooper said. “This shows us there are a lot of unprotected powerful prescription drugs in people’s homes and many people are not properly discarding those prescription drugs.”

“Last year, there were more than 1000 deaths in NC from prescription drug abuse and that exceeds the overdoses from illegal drugs such as meth and heroin,” he said.

Susan Powell, coalition coordinator for Chatham Drug Free Kids said this year’s haul was larger than it’s been in the three years she’s been participating in the medication drop-off events.

“It’s a lot nicer out here today,” said Powell’s co-worker Colleen Hughes. “Last time we were drinking hot chocolate to stay warm.”

“People are cleaning out their medicine chests, some people from nursing homes brought big garbage bags of medications to one of our other locations,” Powell said.

One of those people was Randy Van Buren, who drove up with a cardboard box filled with old bottles and pill containers half full with leftover antibiotics, cough syrups, and pain pills.

“We’ve been hanging on to these for a while because we didn’t know where we could take them,” Van Buren said, as Powell and Hughes dumped the containers into a big bag filled with colorful pills.

Randy Van Buren drops off his family's old medications.
Randy Van Buren drops off his family’s old medications.

“You can’t take them back to the pharmacy, you can’t take them to the doctor, can’t put them in the trash,” Van Buren said. He also said he didn’t want to flush the medications down the toilet, for fear of hurting the local water supply.

That’s also a concern for environmental experts at local health departments, who are supporting the statewide drop-off initiative. Instead of ending up in the streams, rivers and lakes, the medications will be incinerated in a high-temperature furnace.

“The riverkeepers are on board with this too,” Powell said.

She said the need for big events will eventually fade as more police and sheriff’s departments begin housing permanent medication drop boxes. One of the new drop boxes was already across the street from the drop-off event, in the lobby of the Pittsboro Town Offices.

The new medication drop box in the Pittsboro Town Offices.
The new medication drop box in the Pittsboro Town Offices.

The drop off events continue all week at locations in most counties around the state. Click on the interactive map (above) to find one near you.

All photos by Rose Hoban

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...